Picture it. You’re online, ensconced in a muscled avatar, hacking your way through a World of Warcraft quest. A burly blacksmith appears on screen, and instead of brandishing a blunderbuss, turns to you and whispers: “Nothing is better than joining a peace party.” This might be your first clue that whoever is operating the blacksmith suit has things other than digital conquest on the brain.
In 2013, we learned that the Department of Defense, the CIA, British intelligence, and the NSA had engaged in massively multi-agent infiltration (“MMI”) of role-playing games like Second Life and World of Warcraft, spying on the war making, guild building, and gold farming of our night elves and pandarian brewmasters. But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the MMI disclosure is the degree to which the government sees these cyberworlds as unclaimed turf in its war for mass psychological influence.
Psychological Operations or “PsyOps”—recently rebranded by the Defense Department as “MISO,” Military Information Support Operations—might strike you as a Cold War relic. But even though the Iron Curtain gave way to a decentralized digital communications network, our government continues to try to influence the “emotions, motives, [and] objective reasoning” of foreign audiences. Lest you believe the era of simplistic military propaganda is over, the year’s disclosures by Edward Snowden reveal just the opposite—that military messaging is very much alive online. And in the virtual realms of Second Life and World of Warcraft, MISO is heating up.
In December, ProPublica and The New York Times web-published a Top Secret NSA memo and a redacted, undated “primer” by defense contractor SAIC, revealing massive government infiltration of games and social networks. The memo warns that gaming platforms can be a “radicalizing medium” for terrorist recruiters, and to avoid losing the high-stakes game of cyber-influence, the SAIC primer advises that:
- An “in-game presence” would allow intelligence agencies to identify “important propaganda efforts” and work with the game producers to “eliminate harmful or misleading information from the game space.” [All italics added]
- Agents in avatar can exploit “optimal message placement areas” online to place “counterpropaganda” messages of their own.
- Agents can even build relationships with influential avatars or guilds “to facilitate ‘viral’ message spread or in-game dialogue for propaganda purposes.”
- Most concerning, the military contracts its propaganda out to private firms, sometimes operating under “loose guidance,” sometimes using misattribution or stolen identities to obscure its source.
On the sunny side of the Iron Curtain, Americans were protected from government propaganda by the Cold War-era Smith-Mundt Act, which banned the State Department from releasing its anti-Soviet propaganda to American audiences. By all accounts, the Act banned domestic military propaganda, too—a separation of politics and defense considered a feature of a healthy democracy.
Last year, Congress correctly dismantled Smith-Mundt’s dated restraints, which were almost exclusively effective at barring citizens’ requests for State Department programming under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). As we said then, a ban on Americans’ access to the States’ overseas broadcasts is both “highly paternalistic and a nightmare for government transparency.” But the concerns that gave rise to Smith-Mundt—written at the Cold War’s inception, while the Stasi was consolidating in East Germany—remain just as salient. An influential public radio broadcaster is light years away from the covert monitoring of our private lives and the infiltration of our relationships by secret police that the MMI documents insinuate.
We don’t know how repeal of the State Department’s domestic broadcast restrictions has affected the military. And with forces increasingly deploying to cyberspace, the idea that the Pentagon is confining its propaganda activities to non-American users seems, frankly, laughable. For example, one of the DOD’s containment plans was to use British spelling and diction on some of its regional “good news” sites—“just to make sure that it is understood there is no intent to ever target American citizens or American readers.” And Bob’s your uncle!
We agree with the Government Accountability Office when it said in its 2013 review of Defense propaganda that “MISO activities have the potential to undermine the credibility of the United States.” Taking note of the report, Congress recently defunded the $22 million Trans Regional Web Initiative, the “good news” websites placed by the DOD to sway “target” (particularly Muslim) audiences. But taking down the (vaguely) attributed MISO won’t stop the unattributed MISO from going up.
Without the policies and procedures guiding the Defense Department’s MISO and other information activities, Americans who read, congregate, network, and play online may become the unwitting consumers—or targets—of covert propaganda by their own military, or by contractors outside of the military’s chain of command. That’s why the ACLU has filed a FOIA request, demanding that the Department of Defense and the NSA explain the rules of engagement for using propaganda against Americans—whether they’re at home, abroad, or somewhere on Second Life.